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Is Wisconsin Our Egypt? 15,000 Protest Off-the-Wall Right-Wing Governor's Policies

'I've never seen anything like it... there were Steelworkers, Teamsters, Pipefitters, building trades unions and more -- unions I've never seen at a rally in 10 years.'
 
 
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The people power in Wisconsin has become too big for the local and national media to ignore. Just a few weeks ago, Milwaukee Labor Press editor Dominique Paul North told me that workers' rights rallies receive very little media coverage compared to Tea Party rallies. Last month, over 700 people gathered outside the Wisconsin State Capitol to the hold the state's first ever anti-inauguration rally, but it got very little coverage in the local media. Numbers clearly matter.

On February 15, an estimated 15,000 citizens, including union and non-union workers, surrounded the state capitol to express opposition to Republican Governor Scott Walker's plan to strip the state’s 175,000 public employees of almost all of their collective bargaining rights and require them to make larger contributions to their pensions and health insurance plans.

"In Wisconsin we're smart enough to know the truth. We know what this is all about. It's about breaking the back of the middle class," AFSCME International president Gerald McEntee told the crowd. [Watch WBAY-TV's coverage.]

Mike Imbrogno, a shop steward in AFSCME Local 171, told the Socialist Worker's Aongus O'Murchadha how union members surged inside the capital building, chanting their demands.

"I've never seen anything like it. It wasn't just teachers and union members from the University of Wisconsin (UW), where I work. There were Steelworkers, Teamsters, Pipefitters, building trades unions and more--unions I've never seen at a rally in 10 years," he said. "The most amazing thing is when the firefighters came in a delegation. Along with police, Walker has exempted firefighters from the legislation, but they came with signs that said, 'Firefighters for workers' rights.' People were crying."

Nearly 800 Madison East High School students walked out of class to join the demonstration. "Last time I checked Madison was the new Cairo," said senior Riley Moore, whose mother is a Madison teacher and father works for UW-Madison.

Viroqua high school students walked out of class and marched to the Vernon County Courthouse where they gave speeches and were joined by business owners and city employees. "If teachers are willing to stand by us when we need them, we as students need to stand by teachers when they need us," said student organizer Luke Cleiber, in an interview with WXOW. They were back in class by 11am.

That night, about 1,000 citizens, including teachers, nurses and other public employees, gathered outside of Governor Walker's home in Wauwatosa chanting, "Kill the bill," and carrying signs saying, "Stop the attack on workers' rights."

On February 16, Madison public schools were closed because 40 percent of teachers and staff called in sick to protest the bill.

On February 13, at least 100 union workers in Horicon marched in front of the home of Republican State Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald to protest the plan. "I've got a message for Scott Walker. This is my union card and you can pry it from my cold dead hand," organizer Colin Millard said to the crowd once they reached Fitzgerald's home.

The AP reports that Fitzgerald wasn't home and he declined an interview request from WTMJ.

On February 14, more than 1,000 people, including students, teaching assistants and professors from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee marched to the governor's door to express their opposition. "I have two pre-existing conditions and cannot buy health care on the open market," Karen Outzen, a research associate who joined UWM in July, told the crowd. In an interview with JSOnline, Outzen said her health insurance, the only source of coverage for her husband, an electrician who was laid off last year, and her children, would be eliminated under Governor Walker's proposal.

In a separate rally that same day, a coalition of groups presented the governor with the "heartless award" for his proposed plan to rollback the state's Family and Medical Leave Act. Under the plan, employees working less than 25 hours a week would lose access to family leave.

The Washington Post's Harold Meyerson writes, "In Egypt, workers are having a revolutionary February. In the United States, by contrast, February is shaping up as the cruelest month workers have known in decades."

Other actions you may have missed this month

-On February 1, just minutes before 250 citizens, including nurses, patients, and health advocates, gathered outside of Blue Shield's corporate headquarters in San Francisco, the company announced plans to delay raising health insurance rates by 59 percent for two more months. The announcement comes a week after Pacific Care, Anthem, and Aetna also agreed to postpone rate hikes for two months. California's insurance commissioner Dave Jones is currently reviewing the increases to determine whether they are necessary, but he doesn't have the authority to stop them.

“We are here because this is the scene of corporate crime. The bean counters upstairs don’t sit at the bedside and hold the hands of our patients," said DeeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU). "A 60-day delay is a small victory, but it won't alleviate the pain experienced by patients every day who must endure callous price increases and care denials by an industry that cares more about its bottom line than the patients it purports to serve."

"Blue Shield’s announcement today won’t stop protests against Blue Shield or other insurance corporations," said CNA/NNU executive director Rose Ann DeMoro. "We can learn a lesson from the streets of Egypt and other Arab countries. Public pressure is essential to confront tyranny, whether you are faced with political repression or corporate control of our health. There are lives in the balance. We can’t count on legislators, regulators, courts or the lobbyists. We have to rely on the mobilization of people to stop these insurance abuses and step up the call for genuine reform, expanding Medicare to cover everyone."

At the rally, a number of people with Blue Shield insurance said they can no longer afford the premiums. Kerry Abukhalaf said her family's monthly rate increased from $420 to $540 in January. Before the delay was announced, she was notified that her rate would increase to $640 in March. “Our insurance is completely not worth the price. We pay almost half what we pay for rent,” she said with her son in her arms. “It's just a big rip-off. We may just throw our chances to the wind and find insurance for our son and pay out of pocket for my husband and myself.”

Members of groups including Healthcare Now, the San Francisco Labor Council, Consumer Watchdog, and Physicians for a National Health Program, also attended the rally.

According to a new CNA/NNU report, seven of California's main insurers rejected almost 13 million claims, or 26 percent of claims submitted in the first three quarters of last year.

“These rejection rates demonstrate one reason medical bills are a prime source of personal bankruptcies as doctors and hospitals will push patients and their families to make up what the insurer denies,” said McEwen. The national reform law signed by President Obama last spring has, to date, had no impact on the high pace of insurance denials."

WellPoint, the parent company of Blue Shield of California and Anthem Blue Cross beat Wall Street's expectations after it reported revenue of $14.42 billion. Fourth-quarter net income was $548 million. Aetna's fourth quarter net income increased to $215 million from 165 million last year. "It is a very good time for profits in the health-insurance industry," Robert Laszewski, president of consulting firm Health Policy and Strategy Associates LLC, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

The Blue Shield action received local TV and print coverage.

Watch video and hear from people who can no longer afford health insurance.

--On February 7, a few dozen citizens, including consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader, greeted President Obama with chants as he walked across Lafayette Square to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce where he told the CEOs of multi-national corporations that he's convinced "we can and must work together." Members of National Nurses United and Single Payer Action shouted, "What about single payer, Mr. President? Stop caving to the corporations. What about your pledge for single payer? Stop buckling to the corporate power."

"I don't think a U.S. president has ever walked from the White House to pay homage to the business barons. Usually, a president has enough character to say to the corporate barons, 'Would you come and meet in the White House?' So symbolically, it's like a transfer of overt power to the corporate barons who've been opposing almost everything he's proposing," said Nader. “The fact that he snubbed the AFL-CIO headquarters which is right around the corner, whose member unions represent 13 million workers all over the country, sends us a message – that he’ll pay homage to his adversaries and continue to turn his back on his supporters because he knows his supporters have no where to go. They are not going to vote Republican in 2012, so that's disrespect for his supporters.”

"We're protesting the fact that we want our President to pay more attention to what's happening to working people in this county and to not kowtow to the Chamber," said Donna Smith, community organizer and legislative advocate with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

Single Payer Action reports that the President walked within a couple hundred feet of the protesters and waved to them.

National media outlets reported that the President was hoping to ">"mend ties" with the Chamber even though the administration's economic team is filled with Wall Street executives and most multi-nationals have posted better-than-expected fourth-quarter profits, but none of the reporters who covered the speech bothered to interview the protesters outside.

Watch video from Stop the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

--On February 8, some 2,000 teachers and public school supporters packed the Indiana statehouse to oppose Republican Governor Mitch Daniels' proposal to drastically change the state's education system. His plan includes restrictions on collective bargaining, performance-based pay for teachers, and a publicly funded voucher system that could be used to send students to charter schools. The South Bend Tribune reports that teachers jeered when the Republican-controlled House approved a bill that would expand charter schools.

The Indiana State Teachers Association's Nate Schnellenberger told WLFI-TV that the political debate is not about education reform. "It’s much more about diminishing our rights as educators to do what we know is right in the classroom and to share our expertise with our administrators," he said.

Democratic Representative Craig Fry told the South Bend Tribune that collective bargaining is really at the root of the push for education reform. "The bottom line in this whole thing is the Republicans want to destroy the teachers unions," he said. "They can say whatever they want, but the bottom line is they want to destroy the teachers unions because of politics."

Teachers from across the state traveled to Indianapolis to attend the rally, which was organized by state unions and the PTA, and express their frustrations. “We are very concerned they are trying to destroy public education without having a working knowledge of what is going on in public education," said Sande Bemis, an English teacher at Riverton Parke Junior-Senior High School, in an interview with The Tribune-Star. "I think it’s critically important we take a stand and let them know teachers aren’t just going to roll over and accept this.”

Hundreds of teachers rallied across the street from the courthouse in Martinsville on February 14 to keep the momentum going and show their support for public education. "Today's event is to get a positive message out, that our schools do work," said Justin Oakley, an eighth-grade teacher, in an interview with WRTV.

More than 600 steelworkers gathered in the Indianapolis Statehouse on February 15 to oppose what they called the Republican's "anti-worker agenda."

"Our people have worked hard and long," said steelworker Terie Creal in an interview with the AP. "We don't want to give back our rights." --Also on February 8, hundreds of citizens gathered in Frankfort, Kentucky to express opposition to Senate Bill 6, which would allow law enforcement to check anyone they "suspect" is undocumented.

"There are many of us in the House of Representatives who will not sit quietly and let this Senate Bill 6 see the light of day," said Democratic Representative Reginald Meeks. "We will not stand by and promote racism and inequality and injustice being done to you, the citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky."

Check out photos and a video from the Stop SB6 Rally.

--And 200 people with disabilities, their family members, and caregivers demonstrated outside the gates of Northern California's San Quentin State Prison to protest a plan to build a new $356 million death row facility, while cutting services for the disabled.

"If they keep cutting, the day centers and group homes won't be able to afford to keep their doors open, and there is nowhere for these people to go," said Denise Scussel of Tamalpais Valley, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News.

Scussel's daughter Christina, 27, is neurologically impaired and spends her days at Marin Ventures. "Really and truly, my daughter loves this program," Scussel said. "It's her life."

--On February 9, 400 immigrants and their supporters from 41 legislative districts in Washington gathered at the state Capitol in Olympia to call on the legislature to oppose budget cuts and anti-immigration legislation. According to The News Tribune, Democratic Governor Chris Gregoire's proposed budget would cut health insurance for 27,000 undocumented children, eliminate state funding for medical interpreters, cut job preparation programs for refugees, and eliminate state-funded services that help immigrants and low-income refugees apply for citizenship. Those attending the rally also expressed opposition to legislation that would require people to verify their immigration status before they could get a driver's license.

--On February 10, 23 workers, clergy, and community supporters were arrested for blocking the front entrance to the Hyatt Regency hotel in downtown San Francisco. Over 350 workers picketed the hotel for refusing to settle a contract with 700 of its San Francisco hotel workers. According to Unite Here! Local 2, it's been over a year and a half since the last contract expired, but Hyatt management continues to propose contracts that would increase health care costs for workers by hundreds of dollars a month, freeze pensions, and increase workloads. All three Hyatts in San Francisco are under boycott.

According to Labor Notes, workers in seven cities, from Chicago to Honolulu held similar actions. "In San Antonio, Texas, workers put the focus on excessive workloads that cause injuries. They marched into the Hyatt Regency lobby, carrying nine-foot-tall “body maps”—posters of room attendants dotted with “Ouch” stickers where workers report common injuries. Arm, shoulder, and back injuries due to a speedup are the most often reported," writes Jenny Brown.

In Los Angeles, 550 hotel workers and their supporters surrounded the doors of the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, while protesters dropped a banner from a hotel room reading, "Hyatt--Stop Hurting Housekeepers."

In Honolulu, 400 union workers marched outside the Hyatt Regency Waikiki and occupied the lobby to highlight safety concerns. KITV reports that last November, Hyatt housekeepers in Honolulu and seven other cities on the mainland filed injury complaints with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), reporting repetitive motion, back injuries and other ailments suffered on the job. OSHA logs recorded 750 injuries at 12 Hyatt hotels in eight different cities between 2007-2009. According to UNITE-HERE, the union representing over 100,000 workers in more than 900 hotels in North America, at some Hyatt hotels, room attendants are required to clean as many as 30 rooms a day, nearly double what is commonly required in the industry.

--Also on February 10, two dozen members of the Black Economic Council, the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles, and the National Asian American Coalition gathered outside of Google's Mountain View, California headquarters to call on technology companies to do a better job of hiring people of color. The group also criticized Google, Apple, and 20 other Silicon Valley companies for refusing to share their work force diversity data with them. According to a report in the San Jose Mercury News, the groups are asking the government to force the companies to disclose their data.

A report in the Mercury News last year, based on the combined work force date from 10 of Silicon Valley's largest corporations--including Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and eBay-- found that Hispanics and blacks made up a smaller share of high-tech workers in 2008 than they did in 2000, even as their share grew across the country. By 2005, only about 2,200 of the 30,000 Silicon Valley-based workers at those 10 companies were black or Hispanic. The share of women at those 10 companies declined to 33 percent in 2005, from 37 percent in 1999.

According to the report, of the 5,907 top managers and officials in the Silicon Valley offices of the 10 large companies in 2005, 296 were black or Hispanic, a 20 percent decline from 2000, according to U.S. Department of Labor work-force data obtained by the Mercury News through a Freedom of Information request.

--On February 12, thousands of North Carolinians marched through downtown Raleigh to protest state budget cuts and rally for a 14-point progressive agenda, including universal health care, affordable housing, immigrations rights, educational equality, jobs, and equal protection under the law. According to the News & Observer, the NAACP and a coalition of more than 100 organizations from across the state met for the Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally, which also commemorated the 102nd anniversary of the NAACP.

"We will challenge Democrats who are not progressive, and we will challenge Republicans who attempt to revise history, saying that you are back in power after 100 years of absence," said North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber. "This is the people's house. It's not their house. And it's so important we hear from all the people."

"Look at Egypt. That's a perfect example. Talk about the power of the people," said University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Rachel Holtzman, in an interview with WRAL.

--On February 14, hundreds of Kentuckians marched several blocks to the state Capitol to take part in the "I Love Mountains" rally and demand an end to mountain top removal. The march took place as 14 environmental activists, including 76-year-old Kentucky author of poet Wendell Barry, ended a three-day sit-in at the governor's office. "We visit with the legislators and nothing happens," said Berry. "There at least needs to be a debate."

Environmental groups say surface mining has buried more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams. "The bigger issue, I think, is that it's killing a culture. It's changing a people's way of life," said Kentucky author and playwright Slias House. "We identify as mountain people, and when those are taken away, what do we have left?"

"It's about the oldest most bio diverse mountain range in the world being destroyed," said protester Mickey McCoy. "And it's about the cancer rates and other disease these carcinogenic heavy metals are causing."

The Courier-Journal reports that in an impromptu 20-minute meeting with Berry and the other protesters on February 11, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear said he believes "surface mining can be done in a responsible way.” At the group's request, the governor has agreed to meet with people who are affected by strip mining, but he declined a request to withdraw from a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency over the Clean Water Act.

--On February 14, 300 victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault and their supporters marched on the Texas Capitol to urge lawmakers to continue funding family violence programs and crisis centers across the state. Members of the Texas Council on Family Violence and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault said the programs and centers save lives and can't survive if their budgets are cut. One rape occurs every hours in Texas, reports KVUE.

--Affordable housing advocates in 19 cities, including San Francisco, California, Dallas, Texas, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Portland, Maine, gathered to demand an end to drastic cuts to Section 8 and public housing, and to ask lawmakers to "Have a Heart, Save Our Homes." According to the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, the new Republican-led House leadership has proposed to cut as much as $100 billion from the 2011 budget. This could cut off 750,000 Section 8 tenants from federal assistance, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The Obama administration's new budget calls for an additional 5 percent cut to HUD and a $1 billion reduction from the $4 billion Community Development Block Grant program, which funds local housing programs.

The actions in the larger cities received some media attention, but overall, they failed to receive the coverage they deserved.

--On February 15, 45 NARAL Pro-Choice California supporters gathered outside of Republican Representative Dan Lungren's district office in Gold River, California to oppose his support of the current anti-choice, anti-women agenda in Congress. Rep. Lungren is co-sponsor of three anti-choice measures that would severely limit women's access to reproductive health services, cut funding to family planning and allow hospitals to deny a woman abortion care even if her life is in danger.

“Instead of focusing on jobs and the economy, Dan Lungren has chosen to back an extreme anti-choice agenda that is an assault on the personal, private decisions of women in California,” said Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California. “Lungren, whose priorities are wildly out of touch with his district and with California, needs to be held accountable for his support of these outrageous bills.”

NARAL supporters were met by abortion opponents who held signs perpetuating the lie that abortion causes breast cancer. [Watch video from the Sacramento Bee.]

In Seattle, Washington, 90 people lined the streets in front of Planned Parenthood to support the health center and oppose a Republican amendment to cut all of its federal funding. The Seattle rally was one of eight statewide, according to the Seattle Times.

The House is scheduled to vote on the amendment this week.

A number of pro-choice organizations including Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice NY have called for a mass rally for women's health in New York City on Saturday, February 26.

If you know of any future planned actions and rallies, email rose@yourcallradio.org.

Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz, and author of Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland.
 
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